Part 1, Response: Carleton University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology Mental Health Failures and my Suicide Attempt.
Carleton University’s response to my situation is, and was, terrible.
I’ll concede that the opportunity to respond was limited, when I reached out to the administration about my situation I was already in crisis. It was a critical moment. When I asked what processes were in place that handled issues between students I was asked if the problem was of a personal nature or a workplace issue. I’m not sure how you can disentangle one from the other in an environment as closely knit and insular as a graduate school. I had a number of issues I felt needed to be addressed, but at that moment the problems that had pushed me into a corner, those I absolutely needed to talk about dealt with other grad students.
I answered “personal” and the next email I received suggested I “talk to a therapist” about those problems. It was at that point I decided to kill myself. It feels absurd to write that out but that’s where I was, and I suppose it’s my task to elaborate on how I got to that point.
The department administrator’s response, “talk to a therapist” is ridiculous for several reasons. The first thing I should point is that this exchanged happened via email. I wasn’t standing in front of her, she wasn’t being forced to respond immediately. There was time to step back and consider the situation more carefully. Additionally, as a new hire, it would seem prudent for her to consult with others who might have insights to share.
At this point I don’t have much to offer but conjecture as to what happened on her end. Maybe she did ask for help. The office dynamics which would have mediated those exchanges are hidden from me. I am sympathetic to such challenges but at the end of the day I tried to kill myself. Those were the stakes. The department knew my circumstances well, they knew about my illness, and the fact that I was going through a difficult moment was not a secret. Layer over that a pandemic sweeping the globe and the talk and implementation of lockdowns which characterized February of 2021, her response remains negligent at best.
If it wasn’t obvious then, how I responded to her suggestion that I talk to a therapist surely made it clear that she misjudged the situation. I sent her back an incomplete, mistake ridden “department withdrawal” form, digitally signed. I then proceeded to block Carleton email addresses, creating a rule within my email client that would mark them as read and delete them before I could ever see them. I was going to kill myself and the flippant response “talk to a therapist” was the straw that broke me.
The opportunity to respond to this particular sequence was limited. An exchange spread over a few emails is narrow in scope. However, the fact that my health and capacity to deal with the problems I experienced at Carleton had been deteriorating for months before this point. It wasn’t a secret. If someone had wanted to act, to respond to the signs I had put out before this point they could have. None of this happened overnight.
As for reaching out to a therapist, Carleton’s “Health and Counseling Services” are a joke. Currently they hold a 2/5 star rating on google with countless written reviews attesting to their failures. I was openly critical of Carleton’s health services whenever the subject came up, my own experiences with them had been frustrating and draining, they did more to create anxiety than relieve it.
To provide a few examples, the psychiatrist I was assigned ignored my repeated requests for more frequent meetings. He insisted more frequent and regular meetings weren’t necessary, despite my continued objections. Meetings quickly went from once a week, to every other week, and then to once a month, and eventually to twice a year. At one point when a psychiatrist was not available, I had rely on drop in sessions to receive prescription extensions. After several months of this, a doctor who meet with me during one of these drop in sessions was again unwilling or unable, as a consequence of the clinic’s policies, to extend my prescription beyond one month. Frustrated by this I got up and left the the room, the doctor then followed me out into waiting room and when one of the staff asked her what the problem was the doctor responded, loud enough for everyone in the waiting room to hear, that I was simply “throwing a tantrum”. The overwhelming majority of my experiences with Carleton’s health clinic and related mental health services were terrible.
Compounding this problem is the position Carleton assumes with regards to the mental health of its students as a “frame”. The idea that the university “is there for you” is repeated ad nauseam. Professors and staff continually reinforce the notion that if you’re experiencing problems that jeopardizing your mental health you should reach out and ask for help. Accommodations are made possible with coursework, grading, and where possible administrative deadlines. Additionally, the role given to the Health and Counseling Services and the Paul Merton Center, described as the “designated department at Carleton University coordinating disability services on campus”, creates a walled garden with regards to mental health for its students assuming responsibility for their well being. Furthermore, when you consider the near criminal negligence by both the provincial and federal government when it comes to the timely availability of mental health resources, looking outside Carleton’s “walled garden” for mental health support becomes an absurd proposition.
Ultimately, through the services Carleton provides in service of the mental health of its students, the structure of its institutions, and inadequate mental health resources which exists beyond its walls, Carleton University is responsible for the well being of both students.
And in my case, it failed miserably.
“Talk to a therapist” was not an acceptable response.